man and women intimately close in the starry night sky with an infinity sign below them

To His Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

Start Free Trial

Is Andrew Marvell considered a metaphysical poet?

Quick answer:

Andrew Marvell is considered a metaphysical poet. His poem "To His Coy Mistress" exhibits characteristics such as stretched metaphors, wit, and a carpe diem theme, which are typical of metaphysical poetry. Although Marvell and his contemporaries did not label themselves as such, later commentators identified their style with traits like strenuous argument, dramatic utterance, and paradoxes, among others.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Andrew Marvell in his poem "To His Coy Mistress" demonstrates two characteristics of poetry we, today, categorize as metaphysical.

He uses stretched metaphors, for example.  In part one of his syllogism, or logical argument designed to convince his target--a woman--to sleep with him, he refers to their love as "vegetable love."  The idea is that if they were immortal and could spend centuries in the wooing stage of love making, their love could grow as slowly as a vegetable.  The metaphor is stretched, of course.  The slow growing rate of a vegetable is not normally compared to love growing.

Secondly, Marvell displays and revels in his wit and intelligence and learning.  In the second part of his syllogism, in which he centers on the mortality of humans, he concludes with

The grave's a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

And later, in part three, he says that the lovers should be like "amorous birds of prey."

The grave couplet demonstrates his wit and keeps the poem a little lighter than the morbid imagery might otherwise make it.

The comparison of lovers to loving predators demonstrates both a stretched metaphor and wit.

The stretched metaphors, the wit displayed, and, additionally, the carpe diem theme, mark Marvell as a metaphysical poet.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress" as an example of metaphysical poetry.

The term “metaphysical poetry” is not a term ever used by Andrew Marvell to discuss his own poems.  In fact, none of the poets often called “metaphysical poets” ever classified themselves as such. That term was invented by later commentators to describe (often disparagingly) the style of such authors as Marvell and John Donne.

Two brief, reliable treatments of “metaphysical” poetry appear in The Cambridge Companion to Literature in English, edited by Ian Ousby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) and in an essay by John D. Jump in Webster’s New World Companion to English and American Literature, edited by Arthur Pollard (New York: Popular Library, 1976).  Here are some traits listed these books as typical of metaphysical poetry, followed by discussion of the appearance of those traits in “To His Coy Mistress.”

  • “strenuous argument” (Jump 457): Such argument appears throughout the poem as the obsessive male lover tries to convince a reluctant woman to have sex with him. Argumentation is especially apparent in such lines as the following:

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power. (37-40)

  • “a dramatic and colloquial mode of utterance” (Jump 457): This poem is dramatic not only in the literal sense (since the speaker addresses another person) but also in the figurative sense, since his phrasing is sometimes startling (as in lines 27-28).
  • “urgent feeling” (Jump 457): Again, the entire poem displays this trait, but it is especially apparent in lines 21-32.
  • “agile thought” (Jump 457): This trait is particularly obvious in the first stanza of the poem, in which the speaker quickly and easily shifts from one kind of imagined behavior to another.
  • pun[s]” (Jump 457): The most famous example of a pun in this poem is the play on the word “quaint” in line 29, where the word can mean “old-fashioned” but can also refer to female genitalia.
  • paradox[es]” (Jump 457): One example of a paradox is the speaker’s claim that he would love his lady “ten years before the Flood” (8) – obviously a temporal impossibility.
  • imagery drawn from “widely varied fields of knowledge” (Jump 457): in the course of the poem, the speaker refers to India, England, very early history, the end of history, classical myth, Biblical teachings, the behavior of animals, human sexuality, and various other “fields of knowledge.”
  • “serious wit” (Jump 457): The entire poem is witty in the sense that it displays the speaker’s cleverness, inventiveness, and skills at improvisation.
  • metaphysical “conceit[s]” (Jump 457): No conceit (or extended metaphorical comparison) appears in this poem in the way that one appears, for instance, in lines 25-36 of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Nevertheless,Marvell’s ability to play at length with a single idea appears in lines 1-10 of his poem.
  • “unification of thought and feeling” (Ousby 615): The entire poem exhibits this trait, since the entire poem uses reason to promote passion.
  • “violation of decorum” (Ousby 615): It would be hard to think of a more blatant breach of expected, acceptable phrasing than lines 25-30.
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" as an example of metaphysical poetry.

Metaphysical poetry is poetry that contains references to what reality, or the idea of being, really is.  It is philosophical (and often religious) poetry which contemplates what human beings and the universe are.  While Marvell certainly put metaphysical ideas in this poem, this is not the main thrust of it.  This is a "carpe diem" poem  (Latin for "seize the day"), along the lines of Robert Herrick's earlier poem "To Virgins, to Make Much of Time" (and many other poems in the seventeenth century) which encourage young people, specifically reticent maidens, to grasp physical love and/or marriage while they may.  While Marvell gives his argument a metaphysical slant by beginning with "Had we but world enough and time".

Marvell imagines that if he and the lady he is wooing had all of eternity (note the references to huge expanses of time: "ten years before the Flood" (line 8), "Till the conversion of the Jews" (10), "and hundred years" (13) and even "thirty thousand" (16) years, and "An age at least" (17)) they might indefinitely put off the consummation of their love.  In creating this world of unlimited time -- in fact, of the possession of eternity, as God would have -- Marvell can use hyperbole to its highest degree.  Each of his lady's charms would be worth endless years of praising, he said, if they had the time.  His point is that they do not.

He moves on to a more pessimistic thought: while the lady's charms are worth no end of praising, and no amount of time spent wooing would be in vain for her inestimable worth, there is only a limited time allotted to the lovers before they are taken to the "marble vault" (26), and "grave" (31).  So now Herrick's blunt statement of "And while ye may, go marry" (Herrick, line 14) is summed up in Marvell's gentler, more persuasive poetry.  We must not muse on the niceties of courtship, Marvell says to his beloved, and contemplate the eternity of our feelings and the excellence of each other; we must act. 

Marvell ends the poem by saying that they should enjoy their union while they are still young, and he ends with a celestial metaphor (common to many metaphysical poets).  "Thus we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we can make him run."  In the face of the undeniable fact of their eventual (and, from how the poet talks, perhaps imminent) deaths, they must fiercely "tear our pleasures with rough strife" (43) -- that is, burn up their sunny days with love.  While this poem retains the metaphysical flavor of many of Marvell's poems, it is largely one of love and seduction, as most "carpe diem" poems are.

Source: Renaissance Poetry. Leonard Dean, ed.  2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1961,  pp 303-4.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can Andrew Marvell be considered a Metaphysical poet in his poem "To His Coy Mistress"?

Marvell is considered a metaphysical poet. The twentieth-century poet T.S. Eliot, who did much to elevate the metaphysicals, saw an intellectual quality in Marvell's "wit" that was in keeping with the metaphysical sensibility.

In "To His Coy Mistress," Marvell jars us by using extreme hyperbole (exaggeration) and by yoking images of a corpse's decay to a "carpe diem" theme of seizing love today because tomorrow we may die.

Marvell begins the poem by saying if there were world enough and time, he wouldn't mind at all his beloved's shyness ("coyness") about sex. He continues that he would gladly spend thousands of years praising each of her breasts if he could. But, as he points out, they are mortal beings and don't have that long. He then moves to images of worms possessing his beloved's body in the crypt to try to urge her to taking advantage of love now, while she is young and alive.

One of the more vivid and famous images in the poems compares time to a "winged chariot" ever gaining on us in its relentless speed.

While his imagery is startling and more intellectual than lyrical (more argumentative than beautiful), unlike the jarring rhythms of a poet such as Donne, Marvell uses conventional rhyming couplets in this poem to build a steady, regular rhythm.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can Andrew Marvell be considered a Metaphysical poet in his poem "To His Coy Mistress"?

Andrew Marvel can indeed be considered a metaphysical poet in his classic “To his Coy Mistress.” He uses extended logic when dealing with emotions, especially here when it comes to something as illogical as emotions and the seduction of his mistress.  He compares two very dissimilar things to prove his point, as when he says that if she doesn’t give in to him, then “That long preserv'd virginity” will be enjoyed only by the worms in her grave.  Not the greatest image to use in a seduction, but Marvell makes it work.

Like many of the other metaphysical poets, Marvell pays particular attention to the meaning of his poetry, and even though at times his meaning might not be clear at first, after careful reading one can see the ingenious use of analytic reasoning in his poetry.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Posted on